By Joan Chittister. BlueBridge Books, 2015. 185 pages. $18.95/hardcover; $17.99/eBook.Buy from QuakerBooks
In the book of Genesis, God brought the animals to Adam to be named—a divine action, say some theologians, that certified man’s dominion over lesser species, and the right to determine how they should be used as raw materials for food, clothing, shelter, and so forth.
But Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, asks in Two Dogs and a Parrot, what if that naming signified something altogether different: not the scepter of dominion, but the initiation of relationship? We name what is near and dear to us, and this relatedness, indeed, formed the basis of human-animal relations for the vast bulk of human history.
Today, as the twenty-first century lurches its bloody way forward, we are entering the sixth extinction, with humans more estranged from our natural environment, and the beings that populate it, than we have ever been. And yet, the keeping of domestic animals as pets is a worldwide passion (Americans alone spent more than $60 billion on their pets in 2015, says NBC News). Clearly there is a perspective, a healing and wisdom, that can be gained only through relationship with animals.
And that is the basis for this sweet, slim, and deceptively simple book: how two dogs and a parrot (and a parakeet) taught Chittister—a city girl who became an urban Dominican nun—deep life lessons ranging from acceptance and self-knowledge, to rejection and woundedness, to diversity, love, and essence.
Books of animal stories are tricky things; there’s a razor’s edge between the endearing and the mawkish, the heartwarming and the saccharine, the profound and the preachy. Chittister delivers her stories deftly, with love, wisdom, and humor, observing and affirming the pets in her life as sentient beings—and teachers—in their own right. From Billy the beloved parakeet of her childhood years to Danny and Duffy, the Irish Setter and Golden Retriever of her earlier convent days, and Lady, the conure in Chittister’s life today, we encounter these sentient, emotional beings from a deeply contemplative perspective.
Take the story of Duffy, the Golden Retriever stud-candidate who outgrew the specs for his breed and was relegated to a neglected dog run, destined for euthanasia. Chittister and the Sisters rescued him and watched him overcome his soul-emptiness—his joyless obedience and fearful, submissive expectations of judgment. He never became the life of the party, but he learns and teaches one life lesson after another; in his last chapter, we see him spontaneously, joyously chasing butterflies in the convent garden as Chittister ponders his presence, his pursuit and discovery of beauty in simple things and oneness with nature.
Chittister is a progressive Catholic theologian in the Creation Spirituality tradition, affirming original blessing and the Divine immanent in creation. She is also, profoundly, an activist, speaking up for the environment and the people and bringing the lessons of life with her pets into a gentle, empathic—and mischievous—witness for justice for the beings of the earth.
Two Dogs and a Parrot is a rich and rewarding read that lingers a long time in the mind and heart. I highly recommend it!